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Why can’t video games be more subtitle-fan friendly?

I regularly watch anime in Japanese and English, but I rarely play Japanese video games with the original audio. Why? There are no real subtitles. Unlike anime DVDs/Blu-rays, which have a subtitle track specifically intended to be used with the Japanese audio, video games consistently only include captions of the English dub dialog (“dubtitles” if you will). This is problematic for multiple reasons; the captions may not quite represent what’s being said in Japanese, the captions aren’t timed to the original audio and several sections of a game can go entirely untranslated.

Most dubs of Japanese video games seem faithful enough, but even if the translation is well adapted for spoken English, that doesn’t necessarily equate to a good subtitle script. The captions aren’t even timed to the original audio. They look fine when the English audio is on, but with the Japanese track the captions can seemingly disappear and reappear at random.

Two Japanese games I’ve checked out recently are Vanquish and El Shaddai. There are some broad and artificially gruff-sounding voices in the dub for Vanquish so I tried to play the game in Japanese. I started off in a room for the in-game tutorial, where all the spoken instructions went entirely untranslated. Granted a brief note in English popped up that told me what to do, but I realized if I played the game in Japanese, any spoken dialog during the chaotic gameplay, including instructions or objectives, would go untranslated. The captions only come on during cut scenes.

This is a similar problem for Ed Shaddai. For example, save points are represented by a guardian angel named Lucifel who you can hear speaking directly to God when you approach him (on a cell phone no less- must be a direct line). There are no captions for Lucifel’s dialog so that little quirk in the original game’s script is lost if you choose the Japanese audio and don’t know the language. Thankfully the dub doesn’t sound bad- the dry yet casual way Lucifel speaks to God is amusing- but that’s not really the point. I want the option to watch and fully enjoy both versions, like I can with my anime DVDs.

That leads me to my ultimate question: why? Why can’t an additional script be made for the Japanese audio? I understand it would take extra time, effort and cost, but I have a hard time believing it would be cost-prohibitive. I imagine the real reason smacks of lazniess and the original audio is being included as an afterthought.

I can only guess that back in the PS2 era when bilingual Japanese games started coming out, the percentage of gamers who wanted authentic subtitles was small enough to ignore. After around 10 years the industry and consumers seem complacent with the status quo. That’s very unfortunate because it’s now nigh-impossible to affect that change in the video game industry. As it stands the only time we can hope to see an authentic script translation for Japanese dialog in video games is when a game is released without a dub, like the recent Yakuza games for the Playstation 3. Not exactly an appealing prospect.

Has anyone ever encountered a bilingual Japanese game that had an option for a closer translation of the original dialog?

14 Responses to “Why can’t video games be more subtitle-fan friendly?”

  1. Ghostwriter Says:

    A couple of thoughts:

    1.I wonder how everyone feels about this new “Thundercats” show on Cartoon Network. To me,it has the feel of the anime “Last Exile.” I can tell you this,it’s very different from the original show.
    2.Speaking of “Last Exile,”I heard that they’re doing a sequel to this. I hope it arrives soon because I saw the original when it was on G4 when it was TechTV. Do you think it should be brought here?

  2. Chainclaw Says:

    “After around 10 years the industry and consumers seem complacent with the status quo.”

    I think the proper term is “content”, not complacent. I don’t think most gamers care enough about a sub option for it to be an issue. As someone who prefers dubs over subs, I count myself in on that stance.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against subbed anime. Some of my all time favorites are only available in subbed format (Tokyo Godfathers and Eyeshield 21 come to mind). But I still prefer dubs when they are an option, and as a gamer I don’t feel the need for subs so long as they are. I’d rather the companies put all their effort into making an effective and accurate dub job then writing another script for subs

  3. Ghostwriter Says:

    A couple of thoughts:

    1.Chainclaw,I just read your review of “Fushigi Yugi:Eikoden.” and apparently someone agrees with you. A reviewer at THEM Anime Reviews felt the same way you did. He hated it as well and for many of the same reasons.
    2.Well,I like dubs and I wish they had more of them. I wish they had completed the “Eyeshield 21” dub. To me,the series would have been a lot better if it did.

  4. Chainclaw Says:

    1. Yeah I noticed that too. Interesting since I usually don’t agree with that website too often. Four of my all time favorite anime shows are Dominion Tank Police, Project A-ko, Iria, and Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Herioc Knight, all of which received negative or sub-par reviews from THEM. But then again, there are a lot of reviews here that I strongly disagree with as well, sometimes enough for me to write my own reviews in response.

    2. For me the lack of a dub option really isn’t that big of a deal. As long as the quality is good, having to use subtitles is an acceptable concession. Besides, if I wasn’t willing to watch subtitled anime, I’d be cutting myself off from some of the best anime films and tv shows of all time. Something to consider.

  5. Matt Says:

    Well, I have to 100% disagree with you, Chainclaw. There are a number of gamers who like Japanese games and don’t care for the English dubbing, which is why the Japanese audio is included in the first place, so what would it hurt to make that option friendlier for those people? Just like I doubt it would be cost prohibitive to create a second script, I seriously doubt it would take anything significant away from the English dub production either. Anime DVDs and Blu-rays are produced on a lower budget for significantly lower profit margins but they still manage to include a proper subtitle in addition to a dub. Even though the number of gamers who prefer Japanese audio is smaller than those who are inclined to play English, if you made the former happy, the latter would still be happy.

    And Ghostwriter, about the new Last Exile anime, FUNimation licensed it, so it’s coming. It might take awhile for the home video version to come, though.

  6. Chainclaw Says:

    Well if subs can be added without any hindrence to the dub production, then by all means they can go for it. My point is I just don’t think enough gamer fans really care about it for this to be an issue. I could be wrong of course, but when I read english reviews of Japanese games, “why the hell weren’t there any subs” generally doesn’t top the list of complaints.

  7. Ghostwriter Says:

    Well,I was also wondering what you guys thought of “Thundercats” because as I’d said earlier it felt a lot like “Last Exile.” What do you guys think about it?

  8. Ghostwriter Says:

    I read your review of “Durarara!!” yesterday. It was pretty good. Still,there is something weird about the show for me,and it may not be what you think. It’s kind of weird to me that they would show immigrants to Japan. From what I’ve heard of the country,it isn’t exactly an immigrant-friendly country. It doesn’t have the long history of immigration that America has. I’ve heard stories of foreigners not treated well in that country and even those who amazingly have become naturalized Japanese citizens have not been treated very well.
    This attitude may be summed up from a quote I heard from an episode of the 1970’s series “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” They had an episode in which they ran into a Japanese-American working for the Japanese military. The Japanese-American character said “You can live for years in America and be considered American. You can live for years in Japan and never be considered Japanese.” What do you guys think?

  9. Matt Says:

    There are stories all over the world of foreigners not being treated well in other countries. Japan is a very homogeneous population so immigration and multi-culturalism is different over there than it is here. However, the fact that a Russian man is among the cast of Durarara could be taken as proof that things are (albeit slowly) changing even in Japan. I think the country fairly recently passed legislation of some kind that makes it easier for foreigners to live and work in Japan.

    Also, I wasn’t the one who reviewed Durarara, but I can’t say I’m surprised that the immigrant character is who you would choose to comment about. I understand that’s something you find interesting so I don’t mean to be rude, it’s just that your thoughts don’t always pertain to the blog posts you’re commenting on. AAW is trying to get the discussion forums to be… well, discussion forums again, so maybe you could help by starting a topic there about your thoughts on how western people and culture is depicted in anime, or any other thoughts that are on your mind.

    It’s cool that you have thoughts on reviews, but you might have noticed there’s now a link to the forums at the end of reviews encouraging people to post their thoughts about our reviews there. Again, not trying to be rude at all, and if you’re more comfortable commenting on blog posts that’s fine. It’s just kind of weird to, for example, write a blog rant about subtitles in video games and read comments about the new Thundercats show.

  10. Pragathes Says:

    I so wish to continue learning japanese here….but its stuck at part 3-3 no part 4 which they said in one of the lessons (they called part 4-Negatives) so i wanted to learn more….but they don’t want to teach perhaps? Aww….I seriously enjoy learning from them..

  11. Ghostwriter Says:

    Well,sorry about that. I’ve been having a little difficulty getting on the forums. I’ve been trying to change my password to something more memorable for me. Could you please help me?

  12. Matt Says:

    I’ve gone ahead and sent you an email that should help you get logged in to the forums.

  13. Ghostwriter Says:

    Thank you.

  14. Marc Says:

    This is a little late in coming (I was away from computer-things on business and personal trips), but I just wanted to add that while we may be in the minority, there are definitely gamers who prefer subs out there. I’m in the category myself, and both of the guys I regularly watch anime with are fairly hardcore gamers, and both prefer subs when available. Tiny sample size, but non-zero, and honestly, an alternate sub script can’t be that hard to add if you’re already adding an alternate soundtrack option.

    The most glaring (relatively) recent example for me was Valkyria Chronicles. The three of us played through it together, and due in part to general preference, but mostly just because it has a really weak English dub, we used the Japanese audio track. Turns out that (probably partly because of a weak dub script) the dubtitles aren’t all that bad–very rarely a poorly-timed or matched line–but there were spots where I could hear obvious inconsistencies.

    For example, the stereotype that Darksens stink of oil popped up very early in Largo’s dialogue, but the English script, and therefore the subtitles, don’t run into that until later. That had me wondering what was up with the oil-based insults that didn’t make it into the subtitles. More annoying was that there are no subtitles on the short bits of flavor dialogue during the action sequences; they have nothing do to with the plot, so they don’t affect gameplay any, but they say a lot about the minor characters and a few of them are very funny, so it was really sad that only I was getting the jokes, and had to translate on the fly for my co-players.

    Still nowhere near worth suffering through the English dialogue for, but it felt like pointless corner cutting on an otherwise stellar game and solid localization (the lengthy non-voiced blocks of text in the flavor sections of the book are mostly well written).

    But I guess it’s an improvement over having no choice at all, which was the case until quite recently. (Confession: The English acting and script in Final Fantasy 12 is so good that I actually didn’t miss playing it in Japanese in the slightest. I wonder if that would have been the case with Valkyria Chronicles even if the dub had been that good, due to its anime-ness.)